Thursday, 23 January 2014

Memories of GNB


By Mysore V Ramarathnam

(Prof Ramarathnam was a close associate of several leading vidwans)

I heard the vocal concert of GNB for the first time in my uncle’s house on the occasion of a marriage celebrated at Malleswaram, Bangalore. My guru Chowdiah played the violin and Palghat Ayyamani Iyer was the mridangam accompanist.

GNB was perhaps 30 or 35 then. Chowdiah liked him very much. GNB used to call him Soundiah! In course of time, many concerts of GNB took place with Chowdiah on the violin. His concerts with my guru were always a grand success. He always desired to have Chowdiah, who loved the fast tempo, as his accompanist. GNB had a bracing, resonant and impressive voice. His style was rich with brikas. In course of time he had some difficulty with his voice in the shadja. Chowdiah was very cooperative in covering up this deficiency and so his concerts were of a high order, successful and popular. Whenever my master was not available his disciple V. Sethuramaiah (7 stringed violinist), Lalgudi Jayaraman or T. N. Krishnan would accompany him on the violin.

GNB was an expert in singing rare ragas. Emanipogdudura (Veeravasanta), Ragasudharasa (Andolika), Needayatoda (Vasanta Bhairavi), Atukaradani (Manoranjani), Aparadhanlulanorva (Rasali), Vasudevayani and Nidhichala (Kalyani), Etavunnanerehitivo (Yadukula Kambhoji), and Neevera Kuladhanamu (Begade) were some of his favourite compositions and ragas. Generally he sang pallavis in the slow and middle tempos. He would not miss singing tillanas and javalis. He used to sing some of his own compositions like Sadapalaya or Ranjaniniranjani, which are beautiful pieces.

GNB had great respect for Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and his style. On one occasion when Iyengar’s concert took place under the auspices of the Parthasarathi Swamy Sabha, Chennai, the organizers requested GNB to speak a few words in the end. Speaking with admiration and humility, GNB said, ‘It is not possible for anyone to sing in his style. He is the emperor of musicians.’ The joy of the audience knew no bounds and there was continuous clapping for five minutes. During that concert, Ariyakudi rendered the pallavi—Dasaratha Bala Ramachandraiah Dayanidhe in raga Bhairavi —a four-kalai pallavi, very popular in those days. I have heard many musicians rendering this pallavi in the same raga in three tempos. But GNB changed it into two kalais, rendered niraval, and then made room for the percussionist to play the tani, thus establishing a new tradition. He used to sing creative swara phrases in two kalais, and was adept at singing tukkadas like Dikkuteriyadakaattil and others in ragamalika to the great joy of the audience, especially the younger generation.

GNB played the lead role of Dushyanta in the famous Tamil film ‘Sakuntala’ in which musician M. S. Subbulakshmi was the heroine. He played a major role in the films ‘Bhama Vijayam’ and ‘Sati Anasuya.’ He also acted in the film ‘Udayana Vasavadatta.’ I have seen all these films and enjoyed them.

GNB was the son of G.V.Narayanaswamy Iyer, a music lover and Headmaster of Hindu High School, Triplicane, Chennai. He studied in Westerly College while learning music under his father who himself was a disciple of Karur Chinnaswamy Iyer and Madurai Subramanya Iyer. He obtained his B.A.(Hons.) in 1929 and Diploma in Music from the University of Madras. Though he was a graduate in English Literature, he opted to become a professional musician.

GNB is one of the prominent composers of recent times. He has composed 250 compositions in Sanskrit, Telugu and Tamil which have been published in the form of two books. He has invented ragas like Chandrahaseetha, Sivasakhi, and Amrita. GNB became the Royal Court Vidwan of Travancore in 1939 and of Ettayapuram in 1941. He was the deputy chief producer of Carnatic Music A.I.R., Chennai and served as the Principal, Swati Tirunal College of Music, Tiruvanantapuram. The Chennai Music Academy conferred on him the title of ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’ in 1958. GNB had a graceful personality and ready wit. A large number of his disciples have inherited his style. His prominent disciples included M. L. Vasanthakumari, Tanjavur S. Kalyanaraman, Trichur V Ramachandran and T. R. Balasubramanyam.

An interesting incident occurred during a vocal concert by GNB with my guru T. Chowdiah on the violin, at Bidaram Krishnappa’s Sri Rama Mandiram in Mysore. GNB sang the Kalyani raga composition of Tyagaraja, Nidhichalasukhama preceded by beautiful raga elaboration and completed it with a fine niraval and swara phrases. The Secretary of the Mandiram then stood up and requested GNB to sing raga Kalyani. Surprised, GNB turned towards Chowdiah.

GNB: ‘‘Chowdiah, I have just now sung the Kalyani raga and composition and concluded it. What shall I do now?’’

Chowdiiah: ‘‘Do you know who he is? He is our paymaster. You will have to sing.’’

GNB: ‘‘Oh! What shall I do now? Please tell me.’’

Chowdiah: ‘‘All right! Please sing Manamuleda in raga Hamir Kalyani.’’

GNB’s rendition of the raga and composition was very beautiful.

The Secretary, ignorance personified, got up and thanked GNB for having sung raga Kalyani.
Everyone there was amused and enjoyed the ignorance exhibited.

(From "A Musician's Reminiscences” by Prof. Mysore V Ramarathnam (1917 -2008), edited by KS Srinivasan)


  1. I read this article with great interest. I was particularly drawn to these sentences regarding Sri GNB's singing: "His style was rich with brikas. In course of time he had some difficulty with his voice in the shadja. Chowdiah was very cooperative in covering up this deficiency." I have read several reviewers who also wrote about GNB's tendency to stray from shruti at his concerts. I think that is because GNB sang often at excessive speed, and just as a driver who speeds on roads with many bends and twists might go off the road and end up in a ditch, it is very easy to go off shruti when one sings at very high speed. Also, at high speeds, the swaras, devoid of gamakas, do not sound musical at all. And at high speed it is not possible to sing with bhakti. So, the purpose of singing fast is only to entertain, not enlighten, the mind.
    Yesh Prabhu, Bushkill, Pennsylvania

    1. In my conversations with Prof Ramarathnam, I remember him saying that, in the later (golden) years of his life GNB used to share with him that he regretted singing at such high speeds for all those younger years. He apparently did that because he used to draw large crowds and for some odd reason crowd kind of expected high speed singing.. GNB always appreciated Prof. Ramarathnam and other artists such as Iyengar, Mani Iyer who used to sing rather peacefully (nemmadhi in kannada) all the time..